NJ Supreme Court Rules PTI Not an Option After Trial

As reported by the the New Jersey Law Journal, New Jersey’s pretrial intervention (commonly known as PTI), designed to divert less serious criminal cases from prosecution, is not available after charges have been tried and guilty verdicts are returned, the state Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday.

PTI is not now and never has been a sentencing alternative, and admitting an otherwise deserving defendant after a verdict frustrates the goals of early diversion, early rehabilitation and avoidance of the stigma of a criminal conviction, the justices said in State v. Bell.

They agreed with an appeals court that found a trial judge erred in allowing Sean Bell to enter the program after a charge of second-degree aggravated assault, which would have precluded his admission, was dismissed but also after a jury found him guilty of third-degree aggravated assault.

At Bell’s high school graduation party in June 2006, he and Thomas Schwab punched and kicked another guest, Michael Higgins, knocking him unconscious. Schwab and Bell were charged with the same offenses but Schwab was granted admission to PTI in consideration for testifying against Bell.

Bell did not apply for PTI until after his trial, despite the requirement of R. 3:28(h) that applications be made  within 28 days of indictment.

Overruling the prosecutor’s rejection, Ocean County Superior Court Judge Wendel Daniels found Bell entitled to PTI. He said Bell and Schwab were similarly situated and the prosecutor’s decision to deny Bell PTI was a clear error of judgment.

Daniels relied on State v. Halm, 319 N.J. Super 569 (App. Div. 1999), where the defendant was charged with first, second and third degree offenses in connection with a sexual assault. His timely application for PTI was rejected by the court staff and the prosecutor. After he was convicted only of third-degree cocaine possession, he moved for reconsideration. The motion judge said no but the Appellate Division reversed.

In Bell’s case, the Appellate Division distinguished Halm because Bell did not make a timely PTI application.

The Supreme Court agreed in a 6-0 ruling, saying, “Whether pre-indictment or post-indictment, an accused must apply for admission to PTI prior to trial.”

Judge Mary Catherine Cuff, writing for the court, said it was “of no moment” that a jury found the defendant not guilty of first- or second-degree crimes that might have barred his path to PTI.

She said the goals of PTI, first established by statute in 1979, “have been completely frustrated” by Bell’s admission to PTI, nearly four years from the date of the altercation that gave rise to the charges.

PTI admission in this case “not only thwarts the purpose of this particular diversionary program because the defendant has been found guilty of a criminal offense but also nullifies a valid verdict of guilt.

“We know of no authority that permits a court to nullify a valid verdict through the device of a belated application to a diversionary program,” she said.

Assistant Public Defender Dale Jones, whose office represented Bell,  called it “troubling” that he will receive a harsher sentence than his codefendant, absent any distinctions between the criminal acts of the two.

“People who commit the same offense ought to be treated the same way,” Jones said. “A decision like this kind of makes it, who’s got the best lawyer and who wins the race to the prosecutor’s office.”

Supervising Assistant Ocean County Prosecutor Samuel Marzarella said court’s decision, and its decision not to apply the Halm case, reaffirm the time restrictions on applying for PTI in the face of defense counsel’s arguments.

Know Your Options in a New Jersey DUI

A DUI is a serious charge, but not an incontestable one. If you are charged with a DUI in New Jersey, you should not try to handle the case yourself. Criminal defense attorneys in Trenton can help challenge the process of your arrest and the testing of your blood alcohol level. Irregularities in these procedures could mean that your DUI may not hold up in court.

DUI and You

In New Jersey, a DUI is driving with a blood alcohol level of .08 percent or above, regardless of whether your driving is actually impaired. This often means that the entire case against a DUI driver rests on the testing of blood alcohol level. Consent to submit to this test is automatic if you are driving a car; if you refuse a blood alcohol test, your license will be automatically suspended. On the other hand, the police are expected to test blood alcohol as close as possible to the time of driving. This means that they rely heavily on the Breathalyzer test, a means of testing blood alcohol level through the breath.

Breathalyzer tests are far from foolproof. The machine calculates blood alcohol level using a standard set of measures for how much alcohol transfers to a person’s breath relative to the amount in their blood. However, this measure is far from standard, and varies from person to person. It is therefore possible in some cases to argue for the inaccuracy of the test itself. Blood tests, which are much more accurate, are often not administered in time to prove with certainty that a driver was over the limit at the time of driving.

There are additional grounds on which a DUI can be challenged, including the right of the police to stop the car in the first place, since they are not permitted to pull cars over without cause. What all of these arguments have in common, however, is that they are not ones an individual can successfully make without the assistance of an experienced DUI defense attorney.

Fight your DUI in court

The penalties for a DUI are high. Even for a first offense, you may lose your license for up to a year. Fines may add up to thousands of dollars. For a repeat offense, lengthy license suspensions, increased fines and even jail time result. The criminal defense lawyers of Kardos, Rickles, Hand & Bidlingmaier are experienced in fighting for their clients’ licenses. Contact us today for a consultation.